Oct 032010
 

Skylifter

A new type of balloon may make delivering people and provisions to inaccessible places easier

TRANSPORTING large, clunky bits of equipment has always posed a challenge. Roads and railways do not reach everywhere, and even if they did, many cumbersome and heavy constructions need to be hauled in pieces, only to be put together at the final destination. Aeroplane cargo faces even tighter restrictions on shape and size, not to mention the need for runways. Heavy-transport helicopters, such as the Mil Mi-26 or Sikorsky S-64 Skycrane, address some of these difficulties, but their payloads are limited to 20 and nine tonnes, respectively, and the huge rotors create a powerful downdraft that makes handling that payload rather tricky. So people have long been looking for other ways round the problem. Now, Skylifter, an Australian aeronautical firm, thinks it has found the perfect solution.

The company is developing a piloted dirigible capable of carrying loads of up to 150 tonnes over distances as great as 2,000km (1,240 miles) at a speed of 45 knots (83kph). This would permit the craft to transport not just hefty components, but entire buildings, to remote areas. The company envisages modules ranging from rural hospitals and disaster-relief centres to luxury airborne cruise ships.

Rather than use either a spherical or a cigar-shaped aerostat, as the gas-filled envelope of a lighter-than-air craft is known, Skylifter has developed a discus-shaped one. This means that like a traditional, round ballon—and unlike the elongated dirigible blimps that have hitherto been used as serious modes of commercial transport—the craft is “directionless”. In other words, it is oblivious of where the wind happens to be blowing from, which simplifies load-handling in places where the wind is fickle. At the same time, being flatter than a sphere, the aerostat acts less like a sail than a traditional balloon does, making it easier to steer. The flying-saucer shape also acts as a parachute, affording greater control during descent.

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